After World War II, a massive expansion of higher education took place. What had traditionally been a privilege for a small percentage of the population gradually became an expectation for the majority, and by now almost two thirds of working-age Americans have some education beyond a high school degree. The skills of university graduates allowed them to join an expanding knowledge-based economy, and a BA degree became a ticket to the growing middle class. Without anyone fully noticing, however, the higher education system changed character. Most students enrolled not because they wanted to think deep thoughts about fundamental issues, but because they needed marketable skills and a credential. Universities catered to these desires because the resources brought by a lot of students allowed them to expand their faculty and research base.

by javier trueba

@ javier trueba

Effectively they made a Faustian bargain – we give you skills that pave the way for employment and call it education; you put up with a small amount of fundamental knowledge in exchange for a credential that provides you with an economic leg up. It worked if most graduates could monetize their degrees. But as this has become more difficult, Americans are asking whether the cost of higher education is worth it, and enrollments are beginning to fall.

America’s lead was followed in many countries, taking various approaches. While the USSR also expanded the availability of higher education, it carefully controlled access, attempting to ensure that graduates could be absorbed by the economy. Although in the centrally planned but stagnating late Soviet economy a university degree did not necessarily provide great material advantages, it did confer social status and was highly prized. Recognizing the pent-up demand for higher education after the collapse of the USSR, most former Soviet republics allowed the system to expand enormously, with limited oversight. This led to significant increases in enrollments but did not produce commensurate economic benefits, neither for societies nor for individual graduates.

Beyond economics, three other global factors play into skepticism regarding the value of a BA degree: 1) the rise of sectors of the economy that do not demand a BA for entry — IT most visibly; 2) the accessibility of on-line courses that teach specific skills; 3) the global pace of change that causes students to doubt whether they should sit in one place for a long time.

In my view, the result of these trends will be a sharp split in post-high-school education trajectories, not just in Central Asia, but throughout the world. A small minority of the most ambitious students will wish and need to receive an updated version of the deep and fundamental education that universities traditionally provided. This education will not focus on skills and knowledge (although it will inevitably provide both) but rather on a deep understanding of the world and its complexity, on the ability to ask tough questions, to find unexpected answers. Students will “waste” a lot of time exploring various possibilities, and their education will only begin with a BA degree. The payoff will not be immediate, but if such programs are well implemented, they can potentially create a group of enlightened leaders who can solve the “wicked” questions plaguing humanity. Innovative projects to provide this type of education are currently ongoing, and I personally have been asked by Arsen Tomsky, founder of the company inDrive, to create one – inVision U will be up and running by 2025, beginning in Kazakhstan and then in multiple countries.

Most students, however, cannot benefit from this kind of education, nor can societies afford to provide it. Instead, students want useful knowledge and skills, and they need to be able to put them to work quickly and efficiently. For this purpose, the higher education system needs to stop producing ever larger numbers of BA graduates, but rather to build well-thought-out two-year programs that provide students with a skill set that allows them to join the workforce, create their own small and medium-sized enterprises, and grow and develop going forward.

My own experience creating and developing Compass College of Art and Design Professions in Bishkek ( ) shows how this can be done. A college in the former USSR offers three-year programs and accepts students after the 9th grade (at around age 15). Year one provides an accelerated path to complete high school, combing the final two years into one; it is followed by a two-year professional program. This is akin to a US associate degree program but is better, as we can use the high school year to open students’ minds and focus their attention on their future profession. We have discovered that if we offer a creative high school curriculum that concentrates on how to ask questions, how to think, analyze and present ideas, and how to use contemporary technology to find answers, we can quickly move students into design programs, allowing them to graduate at age 18 with imagination, curiosity, and highly marketable skills. They can enter the work force, start their own business, or skip one year of a European style three-year BA program or two of a US style four-year program should they choose to continue studying. Our programs are popular with students and parents because they do not waste time and they produce tangible results. While programs like this are not suitable for every field, most academic fields could be broken up into 2 + 2 blocks.

A major expansion of programs of this sort, with a clear credit transfer scheme for those who have a desire to eventually pursue a BA degree would be extremely beneficial for Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan, for example, which currently has approximately 250,000 students enrolled in mostly unproductive BA programs, would be able shrink them by around 60%, encouraging most students to participate instead in three-year open enrollment programs after 9th grade. Only a subset of the most ambitious, hardworking, and talented would later go on to bachelor’s level education. This approach would allow the state to invest its higher education resources more strategically, produce graduates whose skills and knowledge are linked to actual economic needs, and significantly amp up the intellectual requirements for those who ultimately wish to pursue a BA. There are many hurdles to overcome to achieve this outcome. But the work must be done to solve the significant mismatch between what the educational system needs to do to build the future economy and the current expectations of parents, students, and society.

by Andrew Wachtel Co-founder Director, Compass College,
Director of Educational Programs, inDrive Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan